"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

St Pope Callistus I: Three Holy Desires

hat would you do if someone committed a grave sin? Saint Pope Callistus I, readily embraced back into the church fold grave offenders who repented. But it was not without causing a major controversy, including a schism between his followers and that of Hippolitus, the anti-pope. The controversy lasted almost two decades throughout the reigns of three popes all because St Callistus chose to emphasize God's mercy, charity, and compassion.

There was the rigorist camp—we might call them the slip-once-and-you’re-damned-forever kind of law. They believed that those who committed grave sins, like adultery, extramarital sex, contraception, among others, were forever separated from the true, the pure Church, and there was no way back.

Callistus, when he became Pope, decreed that sinners could be readmitted to communion if they repented and did penance for their sins. In my reflection, I asked myself “What has gotten into the mind of this pastor to do such a move that was seen as scandalous during his time?” And the response I got is three holy desires.

First, St Callistus based the theology of his decree on the power that Christ gave to St Peter and his successors, both to bind and to lose. This reasoning was vehemently opposed by Tertullian and most notably by Hippolytus who both argued that this power had been given to St Peter personally and could not be passed on, so that Callistus’s decree was an invention, and therefore invalid. They accused him of being lax or lenient towards the grave offenders. But the real bone of contention was not about it. Hippolytus was a rigorist and had himself elected into a position that we know now as the anti-pope. Peter and Paul, like Callistus, Hippolitus, and Tertullian, had also contrasting views. It was not even a debate about grave sins. It was about whether or not the gentiles or Greeks should first follow the Jewish practices like circumcision before they can become Christians. At the end of their debates, they always find a common path where peoples’ differences are reconciled. And that path was always the image of Jesus being the friend of sinners—the one who went into their homes and sat down to dinner with the outcasts.

Secondly, St Callistus gave such a decree on God’s mercy towards those with grave sins simply because he desired the desires of Jesus Christ Himself. It is not only the vicar of Christ, but every pastor is configured into Christ's image who is the face of the Father's mercy. We recall Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy from 2015 to 2016. In his Apostolic letter entitled Misericordiae Vultus, “the face of mercy” he said, “When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive. I will have the joy of opening the Holy Door on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. On that day, the Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope” (Italics mine).

The third holy desire of St Callistus to open the Door of Mercy early on in the history of the Church is because he himself was a recipient of God's mercy. He felt God's mercy as God's desire for him personally, choosing him and showing mercy to him. The Pontifical motto of Pope Francis, came from the old motto that he used when he was made Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1997. Miserando atque Eligendo, “Lowly but Chosen,” comes from a passage from the venerable Bede, Homily 21 (CCL 122, 149-151), on the Feast of Matthew, which reads: Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, ‘Sequere me’. [Jesus, therefore, sees the tax collector, and since he sees by having mercy and by choosing, he says to him ‘follow me’] (cf Mt 9:9-13).

Callistus began his career as a highly-placed domestic slave, who was entrusted by his master with the management of a banking business. When the bank failed, Callistus received the blame and attempted to flee from his master for fear of his life. Being discovered, he was demoted to serve as a manual laborer in Rome. Thus, under unfortunate circumstances, Callistus came as a slave to the city of Rome where he would later serve as Pope. Matters went from bad to worse when he was sent to work in the mines during the persecution of Christians.

Callistus always remembered his very difficult times of being imprisoned. He survived and was freed out of the mercy of others. There are those among us trapped in a rat race to get ahead financially or routinely. The person is never satisfied thinking that the more a person has, the more the person wants. This is not true only of material possessions, though, but also of spiritual possessions like honor, glory, sense of pride, and accomplishment. Paradoxically, there are those like Callistus who think that the fewer possessions people have, the more generous they are. Which we find very true among poor people. We all have poverty of one kind or another. Only such persons know through their own experience the value to other needy people of the little they have. Callistus became wealthy not in material possessions but in the sight of God (Lk 12:21). In fact, it was material wealth that put him into trouble with others. When he was freed from the rat race he made it a point to be the voice of the voiceless, the outcasts, and the sinners. And it did not matter to him to be unpopular as a Pope, he already stripped himself of such possessions, power, and prestige to concentrate on the Kingdom of God. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What happened to Hippolytus, who was Callistus’s arch enemy? He was also sentenced to harsh treatment and torture in the mines of Sardinia. When it was his turn to drink from the cup of martyrdom he reconciled with another Pope, Pope Pontian, who was his prison-mate in the mines. Hippolytus humbly admitted his excesses of being an overzealous disciplinarian. What Hippolitus failed to learn while in his prime he learned in the pain and desolation of imprisonment, torture, and death. These three men, Pope Pontian, Antipope Hippolitus, and Pope Callistus I are all venerated by the universal Church today as saints who reflect God’s mercy and compassion. But let us not forget that before they became agents of God's mercy to others they first received it personally. Amen. Fr JM Manzano SJ


  1. Strong experiences leave imprints in our hearts that can never be erased - be it good or bad... Good ones make us a better person and impel us to do better to others as well - paying it forward... However, the bad ones challenge us to forgive and not to repeat the same thing knowing how much it hurts - moving on forward... In our day-to-day life, we are being asked to go forward willingly as long as it is accorded to what God desires for us...

    Thank you so much, Fr. JM, for sharing the story of St. Callistus... And for embedding your beautiful reflections in every composition that you are posting... Learning a lot from you... God bless you...

    1. Thank you for your in-depth sharing on how we should look at human experiences good and bad. To me they are like our wings that help us navigate through life and the thicker our feathers and the stronger the muscles, the higher we are able to reach in the journey of life. I have written about St Ignatius's tool of daily Examen and I likened it to bird flight. You can just search above with flight or bird as key words. GBU!

    2. Wow! It was such a beautiful experience of "flying"... Thanks for sharing this wonderful metaphor of the bird flight as to the Examen of St. Ignatius... Indeed, a life not well reflected is like a bird that cannot glide, or somehow we may be like flying without wings or just up there on air, feeling high, losing balance without direction. Our wings (experiences) give us the sprint to go higher, lower, faster or slower... They move us to hope against all hope... The more we hope for some "greater good", the more our flight becomes smoother and lighter... Yet we must not forget to acknowledge the "wind beneath our wings" (spirit) who gives us all the inspiration to go on, take and stay on the right track...

      I would like to share with you one of the poems that I like so much...

      “Hope” is the thing with feathers

      “Hope” is the thing with feathers -
      That perches in the soul -
      And sings the tune without the words -
      And never stops - at all -

      And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
      And sore must be the storm -
      That could abash the little Bird
      That kept so many warm -

      I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
      And on the strangest Sea -
      Yet - never - in Extremity,
      It asked a crumb - of me.

      God bless you always...
      Many thanks Fr. JM, for letting the wind glide us through the path of consolation... You're writings and compositions are worth reading... And give lots of good inspirations... TC

    3. Thank you for mirroring for us the bird flight metaphor again in your experience. And I appreciate so much Emily Dickinson's poem! Now, through you, I will use this poem to accompany my own Ignatian examen! It has enriched more the metaphor! GBU!

    4. Thanks for your appreciation... I am very much pleased by your response... Actually, just got the inspiration from you, and while contemplating, I suddenly remembered Emily's poem...
      All the best po, Fr. JM! For the Greater Glory of God! God Bless you.. TC

  2. Thanks for sharing an in-depth and inspiring life story of St. Callistus...giving hope to a great sinner like me...What is one thing I love about our God is His great mercy....I cannot fathom it...but it keeps me going in loving, hoping and believing in our Triune God and the goodness of every person I encounter...God bless you, Fr JM and TC!


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